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Religious exemptions: An excess of privilege
By Ken Burrows
More than a century ago, in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) upheld a state’s mandatory smallpox vaccination law over the objection of a pastor who claimed the law violated his religious freedom. The Court stated: “Upon the principle of self-defense, of paramount necessity, a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.”
Today our COVID era is eroding that community safety principle as religious exemptions to public health measures are being liberally granted. Even in a still active pandemic, churches demand the right to hold mass-gathering worship services. Individuals claim personal religious objections to measures like vaccine mandates in the workplace. They are often given religious exemptions to health-protecting protocols—a form of religious privilege—despite the potential harm that comes with that. Texas just adopted a constitutional amendment that bans virtually any limit on religious practice, at any time, even if this endangers public health or safety.
This religious privileging gets more extreme yet. While COVID-related exemption advocates say their religion guarantees them their “freedom,” many of them then use that same religion as justification to deny freedom to others in such areas as LGBTQ rights and reproductive health choices. Laws and courts allow this, broadening religious privilege at the expense of other citizens’ rights and liberties.
How far could this religious privileging go? Is there no limit? It’s an accepted principle that government cannot judge the validity of a particular religion or the sincerity of its adherents. If there is no limit, consider some of the “churches” and “religious” practices that would merit privileging:
Church of Euthanasia. Considered an anti-human religion, it advocates for massive population reduction.
The Temple of the True Inner Light. Believes that psychoactive substances such as dipropyltryptamine, LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, and others are the true flesh of God and religion must be based on psychedelic experience.
Polygamy. Continues to be a religious practice for some churches.
Snake handling. A religious ritual so dangerous it’s been considered by many people as a form of child abuse.
Dowry. Involves a potential suitor giving money to a girl’s parents in exchange for her hand in marriage. Raises questions of slavery, sex trafficking, and promoting sexual assault of minors.
Animal sacrifice. Potentially violates animal cruelty laws.
Before dismissing these as being too fringy to be relevant to the issue of religious privileging, remember government cannot judge religious beliefs as valid or not. Note also that Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch has stated that just as religious belief is a protected right so is the right “to act on those beliefs.” If we’re going to give traditional religious beliefs the prerogative to risk harm by superseding public health protections, we must give non-traditional religions prerogative to harm as well.
The better solution to these dilemmas is to prevent harm altogether by not granting any brand of religion the excess of privilege that allows it to threaten the health and safety (or the rights) of others. Instead follow the counsel of James Madison, father of the Constitution. He wrote in a 1776 declaration of rights that “no man or class of men ought, on account of religion, be invested with peculiar emoluments or privileges.” That’s timely advice, especially when peculiar privileges given to religion imperil the community at large.
Published November 17-23, 2021 in the Freethinkers of Colorado Springs Freethought Views column with the quotation "below.
Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty.
--- James Madison